Just as a magician never reveals their secrets, it has long been a universally recognized unwritten rule within the clowning community that one should never steal another’s look. But how do clowns keep a record of these unique makeup designs and original costumery to ensure that such theft is never committed? Allow me to introduce the nightmarish egg-based archive that clowns all over the world have used for more than seven decades.
Known as the Clown Egg Register, the bizarre record-keeping system was first developed by Stan Bult, a North London circus enthusiast and founding member of the United Kingdom-based network Clowns International (formerly known as the International Circus Clowns Club.) Until his death in 1966, Bult spent many years following circuses around the UK to meticulously paint the faces of clowns onto at least 200 chicken eggs that had been hollowed out using a blowing technique to remove their eggy contents. After Bult’s passing, his clown egg collection continued to be displayed; unfortunately, during one of this exhibitions, many of Bult’s clown eggs were damaged beyond repair. When Bult’s clown egg practice was revived in 1984 by Clown Bluey, dozens of Bult’s eggs were recreated based on photographs.
The clown egg tradition has also evolved over the years from chicken eggs to more durable ceramic eggs. It has also spread beyond the UK; in the United States, clown entertainer Leon McBryde and his partner Linda began their own registry using goose eggs, amassing a collection of more than 600 clown faces.
“It’s an honor amongst clowns that we would not directly copy another clown’s makeup,” Greg DeSanto, executive director of the International Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center in Baraboo, Wisconsin, told Hyperallergic. A professional clown for over 40 years, DeSanto explained that while clowns are often inspired by other performers, many are encouraged not to directly imitate another clown’s unique look.
DeSanto also explained that although the egg catalogue functions as an important “honorary” archive, it does not function as an official copyright registry that would hold up in any court of law, “unless it was a clown court.”
“Ronald McDonald for the McDonald’s Corporation and Bozo the Clown [for Capitol Records] were licensed franchise characters that were developed as trademarked entities,” DeSanto said. “As a performing artist, there are probably some steps you could take to protect your look, but the only way you can really protect it is if you’re willing to pursue it in court.”
For many years, the Clowns International egg registry was divided between an East London church and a complex in Wookey Hole in Somerset until the gallery closed a few years ago. Deanna “Dee Dee” Hartmier, a chairperson for Clowns International, told Hyperallergic that while the organization searches for a new permanent home for the egg registry and corresponding clown history museum, the eggs are still put on display in different locations for various events.
Since 2010, clown artist Debbie “Jolly Dizzy” Smith has been Clown International’s egg painter. Creating portraits for each new member that joins the organization, she paints the eggs using highly-detailed photos of members’ makeup and costumes, at times incorporating additional details such as hair and costume sample materials.
“It’s very intricate work and each one takes three days to complete,” Clowns’ Gallery-Museum Director Mattie “the Clown” Faint told Financial Times in 2013. “Registering your own egg is one of the highlights of becoming a performer.”
These clown egg portraits can also be viewed in the book The Clown Egg Register (2018) by photographer Luke Stephenson and clown artist Helen Champion. Stephenson told Hyperallergic he began the project after happening upon the egg collection in East London.
“I like the idea that these eggs were actual people,” he told Hyperallergic, adding that he was fascinated by how the real lives, work, and stories of talented entertainers were represented on “such a common place object.”
His book mostly chronicles the artwork of egg artist Kate Stone, who has created about 150 of the eggs in the collection. While the original Clown Egg Register searches for a new home, Stephenson’s photography book offers a glimpse at the frightening fine art of clown egg portraits that will probably also make you wonder: Couldn’t they have just used cameras instead?